Overhead Essentials

If the program is the heart of a nonprofit, overhead is its backbone. Overhead is known as general and administration costs and, in some circles, it includes fundraising as well. Since the definition of overhead may vary, you should be clear on what it means. For example, in government agencies, fundraising is usually not part of overhead, while other entities consider anything besides program costs, overhead.

Overhead rate on grants –Many grantors use “overhead rates” to reimburse nonprofits for administrative costs. This rate, a percentage, is usually calculated based on prior financial numbers and negotiated with grantors. The calculations can be complicated and detailed.

To decrease this complexity, the Federal government pays nonprofits a standard 10% overhead rate on their grants. This means that after reimbursing direct costs, it adds a 10% for overhead. If direct costs are $100, the reimbursement will be $110. This setup may be fine for smaller organizations, but not for larger ones that may negotiate a higher rate. The idea is for the overhead rate to cover costs that cannot be allocated easily to a program, like an electric bill for a building that houses many programs.

This rate should be reviewed every year to make sure that indeed the overhead rate is at least equal to actual overhead costs. If the rate of 10% reflects $100,000, but the actual overhead costs are $120,000, then the organization may need to negotiate a higher rate with the grantor for the next fiscal year.

Overhead requirement on grants and gifts–Another reason overhead is important is that it must be part of every grant proposal or gift. Some nonprofits have funds restricted for certain programs only with nothing much left over for overhead, forcing many to fundraise for overhead mostly. It’s a strange situation where an organization may have money to fund research programs, but cannot pay its phone bill and other basic needs. Quite real and disconcerting situation.

To avoid this issue, nonprofits have started to require a percentage for overhead to be included in the gift or grant or they cannot accept it. I have seen a large nonprofit say no to a large gift because of this issue.

Overhead should NOT be zero –Overhead exists for a reason and if it shows as zero on financial statements or tax forms, you have a problem.  It could be an accounting error in classification or not understanding what overhead is. Whether fundraising is included or not, there should be something allocated to overhead in items like insurance policies, salaries or supplies. Even if all employees are unpaid,  expenses exist that cannot be specifically assigned to a certain program and are part of overhead. While it’s understandable the wish to keep overhead costs low, it’s not realistic to keep it at zero.

The first thing to think about when someone mentions overhead is to understand what it means. That is very important to make sure everyone is talking about the same thing. The overhead definition and calculation may vary among grantors and even government agencies. So, ask questions about it, don’t assume anything and don’t forget about it in proposals.

 

Check out the book”Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide- Second Edition First edition nominated for a McAdam Book Award.

Challenges in Financial Planning of Nonprofits

Nonprofits need to plan for their future as any other firm. However, because of the nature of nonprofits, planning can be quite a challenge. While for-profits rely on the sale of goods and services, nonprofits must count on grants and donations for operations. Expenses are mostly related to programs and are very dependent on the income stream. Since the point of a nonprofit is not to generate profits, many don’t have that much left over after they spend all revenues. So detailed planning is a must. Some of the challenges of planning for nonprofits are:

Income uncertainty

Bills are a sure thing, but income may be received after a campaign, a gala event or gifts and grants. Nonprofits may not be able to ascertain the amounts and timing of such income as donors that may have given certain funds in the past may not be able to keep on giving at the same level. Grants may be cut or delayed with no prior notice. Also, grant income may decrease if auditors find noncompliance items and those could be substantial and unexpected. The key here is for the organization to learn of any changes in income stream the earliest possible time to be able to adjust for those.

Because of this instability, it’s always good for a nonprofit to keep a “cushion,” also known as a reserve to be used when the unexpected hits. Add a bit to budgeted expenses, just in case, and contact major donors and grantors to verify any changes in revenue.

Lack of financial knowledge

Many nonprofits are headed by kind people with the best intentions and good contacts. But too often the organization lacks financial education and experience. Basic financial concepts may be missing. Sometimes people are not aware that they need help in this area until something happens that doesn’t make sense to them. This vacuum can pose additional challenges on planning since many concepts may be new to management.

Boards of directors must have people with financial expertise to help in this process and provide guidance in these matters. Also, management should make efforts to learn about accounting and finance so that they can make right decisions. Usually, having a bookkeeper with some experience with nonprofits is not enough to see “the big picture.”

Lack of Time

Typically, nonprofit managers wear many hats, are hands-on, and there is no time to focus on planning and financial matters. It’s hard to think about financial planning and strategy when so many things need to be done today. The result is that usually information is pulled in a hurry and not analyzed, resulting in poor planning and errors.

It’s a good idea to have appointments and set schedules for managers to talk about planning and strategy, A bookkeeper or accountant can only do so much in financial planning. He or she needs input from various areas such as from managers regarding new programs and fundraising folks about new grants or changes in donations.

Planning for nonprofits pose particular challenges but can be done. Management can learn from past mistakes and try to get a better planning model moving forward.  The concept here is that nonprofits must take planning seriously and keep on improving it. Donors and grantors like to see a nonprofit planning ahead and not just putting off fires.

 

You can check out my books at:

Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide -Second Edition — First edition was nominated for a  2016 McAdam Book Award

15 Quick Tips on Becoming a Great Consultant  — Free on Kindle Unlimited

 

Nonprofit Budgets Explained

Budgets are financial guidelines to make sure the organizations are going in the right direction. Like any other business, nonprofits need to plan ahead using budgets, often based on prior financial data and expectations for the future. This process, done a few months before the new year starts, involves managers and board members, to make sure the budget is reasonable and attainable.

There are many ways to start the budgeting process. Many organizations develop budgets based on income first and then expenses, while others start with expenses and then work on the revenue — it depends on the nature of the organization. For example, when a nonprofit receives most of its income from grants, it’s easier to estimate income first and then work on expenses.

Budgeting is a group effort

In order to develop a good budget, you need to be realistic and detailed-oriented.  A lot of research is required, and not just financial, but programmatic as well — is the nonprofit going to expand or shrink certain programs?  Are there any plans for construction or another capital improvement?  You cannot do it in a bubble –you need a lot of information from the past and from the future, and that usually involves many meetings and discussions.

Use prior financial reports

The first step to create a budget is to print out current revenue and expense detailed report by account and use that as your basis for the future. For example, if you see rent expense of $1,000 a month, then you should budget for this amount for the following year unless you know that the rent will increase or decrease in the near future. Look at each account and try to forecast the best you can about the following year. This type of work is often done during the last months of the prior year so that any trends or new information is included in the budget.

Consider major changes and grants

Although budgets are usually done once a year and then the numbers remain static, there are instances where budgets are changed and re-approved by the Board during the year. This may happen when a nonprofit loses or gains major funding by surprise, making the original budget obsolete.

Nonprofits receiving government funds incorporate grant budgets as their own. It doesn’t make sense to use multiple budgets — it creates confusion.  Organizations also need to consider government cuts and how that would affect operations.  As a rule, budgeting for a bit more revenue than expenses, allowing for cuts and unexpected expenses is a sensible approach. It’s always good to have a bit of a financial cushion.

Budget follow up is a must

Once budget numbers are approved by the Board and entered in the accounting system, the next step is to get actual vs. budget reports starting with the first month of the new year. Be sure to look at budget variances for the month and year-to-date. If you only look at monthly numbers, you may miss variances that may be small on a month-by-month basis, but significant for the year. For instance, if you see that your revenue is down $10,000 this month, it may not mean much, but if you compare year-to-date actual to budget numbers, you may have a $100,000 hole in the budget that needs to be corrected by using funds from prior years or by cutting down expenses.

Note that many nonprofits count on restricted funds to operate and that’s when confusion may start up. When developing an operating budget, differentiate between restricted revenues and others and be sure that donor documentation supports the decision to use restricted funds. You cannot unilaterally decide to use restricted funds — the donor must have given express permission for the money to be used a certain way.

More than one budget

Some organizations have separate budgets for capital expenditures to be used in major construction or another major project, which can be a sensible budget approach. Keep the operating budget separate and review both, looking for discrepancies and double counting. For instance, you may receive funds to construct a school and that should go towards the capital budget only — not towards operations. In some cases, the same funding may show up in two different budgets by mistake. Look out for those that can create a major problem.

Keep good documentation

As discussions are done and decisions are made regarding the budgets, keep good records that are always important when looking at budget vs. actual reports. If numbers are not going according to plan, it’s crucial to look at the reasons for the budget amounts. For example, if expenses for postage are way over budget, maybe the budget numbers didn’t account for a new campaign or for all campaign expenses.  This can help budgets be more accurate in the future.  Documentation can also help management in analyzing the financial reports to identify areas of real problem.

>>>BEWARE  Accounting or the financial department folks should NOT prepare the budget by themselves —- they need to contact others within the organization to finalize the budget process.
Check out the book “Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide” –– Nominated for the 2016 McAdam Book Award

Special Events– Pick up All Costs

 

Planning your next fundraising event? Now it’s the time to consider pesky financial issues that can derail your best efforts. Many fundraisers, focused on the tasks to make the event a success, end up forgetting some crucial activities and costs, such as the items discussed next.
1- Create a Budget for the Event

Be sure to create a budget with all costs way before the event takes place. I have seen an event budget for a gala where the cost of drinks was forgotten. So, it’s easy to miss important items and underestimate the event expenses. A way to avoid this problem is to have someone from accounting or finance department look at the budget numbers. Another way to prevent this issue is for development people to use a template budget form that contains common line items. Not every event is the same, but they usually have many expenses in common.

2- Consider Insurance Issues

Oftentimes events involve certain activities, such as a petting zoo that may require an insurance rider to be sure the event is covered. These riders are usually not expensive, but they are part of the overall costs of an event. Nonprofits can also ask insurance documents from the third-party to be sure all is covered and a rider is not necessary. Be sure to have this cost as part of the template budget form.

3- Look out for Sales Taxes

Many states, such as California, tax specific items within a fundraising event, such as certain auction items. Check your state and other government agencies to verify what is taxed in your jurisdiction. Tax rates may vary by state, county and city, so double-check this issue and consider it in your budget because it can take an unexpected bite of your proceedings. In California, the sales tax rate can be as high as 9.00% +of gross sales.  This tax may change, so double check with your state to make sure you’re OK.  Ask about sales tax waivers, if available.

4- Don’t Forget Overhead

Overhead costs are those that are not directly associated with the event. For example, an event carried on at the premises may involve rent or mortgage, fire insurance, maintenance, utilities and other administrative costs. These expenses are easily ignored because the event organizers don’t have to pay for those; they are often considered to be costs of the organization in general. To account for this “hidden: cost, some nonprofits charge a fee as rent to the event, while others charge a percentage of direct costs. The point is to note all costs associated with the fund-raising event.

5- Don’t Leave Wages out

Wages paid, including any overtime, to employees involved with the event should be part of the event budget, especially when dealing with large events where a lot of time is spent on planning and organizing. For instance, if someone is paid $30K in wages and works three months on an event, about $7,500 ($30,000 x 3/12) should be considered an event cost. Usually, a percentage, such as 20% is added to the gross wages to account for payroll taxes and benefits.

Check out the book “Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide” –– Nominated for the McAdam Book Award

Four Quick Financial Tips for Nonprofit Board Members

Confused about what to look for when reviewing financial statements? Maybe a bit intimidated by all the numbers? Well, you are not alone. Many board members don’t really have a framework to evaluate financial reports and may miss important details. You don’t need to have an accounting background or to understand debits and credits to be able to focus on relevant areas. Below are four important areas to look for:

1 – Approve budgets that show most expenses in programs.

Programs are the most important part of a nonprofit and should be the main focus on any budget. If most of the expenses are allocated to administration or fundraising, it may mean that the organization will be launching a new program, or it could mean that the nonprofit lost its focus and needs to re-think its budgets as it relates to programs. If the focus is not on programs, something is wrong.

2 – Always look at the cash on the Balance Sheet/ Statement of Financial Position.

Many boards only review revenues and expenses, but not the cash balances. Cash is indeed king and should be evaluated carefully, as revenues and expenses may or may not show cash transactions, depending on the accounting basis used. If you see $10,000 in income and $1,000 in expenses, but only $100 in the cash balance, you should start questioning how the nonprofit is paying its bills.

3 – Pay attention at variances between actual and budget numbers cumulatively.

As budget vs. actual reports are presented, you should look for small variances in revenues and expenses that may end up becoming large differences after a few months. If revenues, for instance, are below budget by 5% every month, at the end of three months, the cumulative difference could be 15%, and the nonprofit may not have the resources to pay for its expenses as time passes. So, be sure to review cumulative variances as well as monthly ones.

4 – Review tax returns before they are filed.

The IRS promotes the idea of boards of directors reviewing tax returns before they are filed, as the 990, the nonprofit tax form, specifically asks if the board had reviewed the returns. The point here is to make the board accountable. Whether they like it or not, board members are responsible for the 990 information filed.

Check out the book “Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide- Second Edition” –– First Edition nominated for the McAdam Book Award

Quick Tips on Nonprofit Financial Planning

Each organization is different, but every one of them is likely to face  challenges when planning for the future. Cash flow is crucial –no business, including a nonprofit, can survive without proper funding. However, many times people are concerned about the day-to-day activities of an organization and don’t pay attention to planning ahead. This issue has become even more important now that FASB released a new guideline requiring nonprofits to show how they can pay their bills in the next 12 months.

Check out 5 ideas that nonprofit managers may consider when conducting financial planning for an organization:

1- Use a budget

Budgets should be prepared before the year starts. Small organizations could use the prior year’s income and expense numbers as budget numbers for the following year. Once a budget is set up, then income and expenses should be compared to the numbers to be sure the organization is on target financially. Running a nonprofit without a budget is like shooting in the dark. It’s too easy to forget details and to end up with no money at the end of the year.

2- Pay attention to the timing of your cash flow

Cash is king in the nonprofit world. Without cash, an organization cannot pay its bills and must close or merge with another nonprofit. Timing is crucial, not just the amount of funding. For example, if an organization has a big bill to pay in August, but the money to cover this expense will be received in November, the nonprofit must deal with this shortage and start planning for it months in advance.

3- Consider getting a line of credit BEFORE you need it

Since funding can be cut or reduced with not much prior notice, nonprofits should get a line of credit from its bank. The best time to apply and get such line of credit is before the nonprofit needs it. This money could be used if funding is delayed or to cover a planned short-term cash shortage. Inquire about special lines of credit for nonprofits, which may have a lower interest rate and more favorable terms.

4- Educate your board of directors on financial literacy

Many organizations have very involved directors and officers, but they may not have the financial knowledge required to run a nonprofit. Therefore, such leaders should get a basic understanding of finance to evaluate reports and to hire and staff the accounting department properly. Some boards hire an outside consultant to come in a few hours a month or a week to supervise staff and resolve any problems before they become major. It’s an option, but the board must understand what is going on.

5- Allow for surplus

When planning, be sure to consider a cushion for the unexpected. This could be 2-10% of the total budget for a year, or an amount or percentage agreed by the board. This surplus, also known as “reserve,” is to be used for emergencies or unexpected costs, and is usually replenished once used up. The plan should be NOT to use these funds, but to have them, “just in case.”

Financial planning for a nonprofit can be a bit of a challenge, but it should be done to maximize the chances for survival and growth of a nonprofit. Without planning, small organizations may get by, but may not be ready for unexpected funding cuts. Making financial planning a priority can help your nonprofit to go in the right direction and make a difference in the community.

See more:

Nonprofit Finance: A Practical Guide – Second Edition– First edition was nominated for the 2016 McAdam Book Award

What you need to organize a nonprofit well – Article-Blog